April 13, 2014 § 4 Comments
As a single twenty something, I subsisted on stories of sexual exploits. Brunch with friends consisted of dishing the dirt on what happened the night before. All of our experiences seemed like some kind of amazing movie, where the hot musician/artist/stranger from out of town walks in and sweeps away the night with his own unique way of wooing, either leading to mounting sexual tension or strewn sheets.
I also worked at a brand new restaurant where they only hired you if you were beautiful or Irish. Everyone was sexy. We worked hard, played hard, and then all ended up in bed together. To be honest, it was the best job I ever had, with the strongest sense of community. The drama kept it interesting, and persistent flirtations kept my adrenaline pumping. People with commitments didn’t fare so well working there. But I had no strings, no attachments, and just a couple of obsessions. I was at that age where you were allowed to be just a little bit stupid. I learned that you probably shouldn’t mix business with pleasure, but it’s a lot more fun when you do.
Ten years later, I look back on that time as my heyday of singledom. It was an adventure to sleep with all kinds of men, and I’m glad that I did. I learned a great deal about life from all of those experiences. I never imagined that my life would change so much since then, and that I would choose to be in a monogamous marriage.
We’ve both admitted that the single thing we miss most about dating is the variety. Once married, that excitement of the brand new person in your arms is a thing of the past. The challenge is to go beyond the familiar to create a fresh erotic experience. Biologically, the familiar is a warning signal that keeps us from committing incest, and once your family, there is nothing more familiar than your spouse.
At times, we get our kicks from listening to stories told by our single guy friends. But as they talk, I find myself feeling depressed and left bored. They check young girls off their list, and are consumed with looks rather than substance – the type of girls who like to flip their ponytail in your face; had a boob job at eighteen; and fail in conversations with comments like, “Alcohol was once illegal? That never happened!” In the meantime, the fully formed human beings are relegated into friendship territory.
For much of our lives, love and sex are two very different things. If you marry a person based on your passionate sex life, you’ll wake up one day to find that you have nothing in common. If you marry your best friend, you’ll realize that as love grows stronger, keeping sex fresh is a challenge. Love and sex only come together completely in the first initial phases of an intense relationship, and as familiarity takes over, lust wanes.
Everything that I’ve ever felt about the nature of human sexuality is explained and affirmed in Sex At Dawn – How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’. As their theory goes, we owe much of our culture to the rise of agriculture, but the earth was a more balanced place when we remained hunter-gatherers in pre-history. There was no famine, no malnutrition; people grew taller and lived longer; finding food took up to three hours a day leaving the rest of time for play; when food and resources were scarce they kept moving; and communities were kept small so that everyone could be accommodated for. Strength came from how little you had – as in possessions as well as people. Greed represented failure, and sharing was the ultimate benefit. As food was not withheld, neither was sex.
During ovulation, women slept with as many men as possible, letting the best sperm-match for her egg battle it out inside her body. The baby could be anybody’s, and this ensured protection for the child. Everyone took responsibility for raising the children. There are many communities throughout the world that still function in this way, though outside pressures threaten to stamp it out.
Our bodies perform functions that are basic to this mode of sex and reproduction. As a woman vocalizes during orgasm in the throes of sex with one man, she is calling attention to other potential mates in the area. When a man thrusts, his action combined with the coronal ridge of his penis creates a suction that removes competing sperm from a woman’s vaginal canal. A woman’s body will actually attack sperm that are not the right match for her egg. But when sperm and egg are the right match to make a strong and immune child, her body is more welcoming. These various functions are called “sperm competition.”
There is a lot to be learned in this regard from our primate cousins. With Gorillas, the largest male wins all the females. He competes with his strength, but his scrotum is tiny – an example of male competition rather than sperm competition. With bonobo chimps, the females lead with a sexually free society, where the males can enjoy themselves instead of posturing to win the ladies. When there is enough sex to go around, everyone can relax.
Most social primates are non-monogamous. In fact, it’s a real stretch to find any animals anywhere that are monogamous. I hate to burst the bubble, but even penguins find a new mate after the hardships of protecting the young are through. Sometimes penguins engage in threesomes that are beneficial for the male in times of keeping the egg warm – double duty.
Of the primates, gibbons are a standout for their solitary existence up in the trees, with a generally monogamous existence. Among the gibbons, males and females are exactly the same size. Humans have much more in common with chimps and bonobos in regards to male/female size ratio and the general size of male sex organs. We also share 98.8% of the same DNA.
As a social function, sex throughout history has been a solidifying exercise between people groups – a way to create bonds, establish friendship, welcome distant travelers and gain their trust. Marriage, on the other hand, was a negotiation – an economic and political maneuver. Typically, patriarchs chose who you married, before the Victorian era built up the idealistic idea of marrying for love. That same era was the most uptight, restricting, and repressive time. No one thought that women actually wanted to have sex. They were idealized as angelic creatures, all the while getting their orgasms at the doctor’s office in treatment for Hysteria.
“Otto Kiefer, in his 1934 Sexual Life in Ancient Rome, explains that from the Roman perspective, “Natural and physical laws are alien and even opposed to the marriage tie. Accordingly, the woman who is entering marriage must atone to Mother Nature for violating her, and go through a period of free prostitution, in which she purchases the chastity of marriage by preliminary unchastity (Ryan, Jetha, 124 – 125).””
Sound advice. There is a reason why “gang bangs” are such a popular porn feature. The truth is, it takes us back to our roots in the ultimate expression of sperm competition. Monogamy has caused an increase in fertility issues in men – some 20% of men suffer, and the numbers are rising. These issues would never arise in a non-monogamous society, where the strongest sperm win, weeding out the weak. In monogamy, the weak just keep trying.
A man’s sexual preferences become rigid in his youth, while a woman’s preferences are infinitely flexible (whether she knows it or not).
“Gay or straight, the men were predictable. The things that turned them on were what you’d expect…. The female subjects, on the other hand, were the very picture of inscrutability. Regardless of sexual orientation, most of them had the plethysmograph’s needle twitching over just about everything they saw. Whether they were watching men with men, women with women, the guy on the beach, the woman in the gym, or bonobos in the zoo, their genital blood was pumping. But unlike the men, many of the women reported (via the keypad) that they weren’t turned on. As Daniel Bergner reported on the study in The New York Times, “With women… mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person (Ryan, Jetha, 273).'”
Despite the major shift in consciousness through the last one hundred years, women are still very good at being sexually dishonest with themselves. And why wouldn’t they, when society at large anxiously awaits that moment when they can label a woman a slut or a whore? Women are still punished for being sexual, when it should be celebrated.
I’ve never fared well with overly idealistic women. When they ask me to tell them how I met Michael, how he proposed, where we got married – I cringe a little bit. They are all great stories, but they sum up our relationship into some bizarre fairytale narrative that has nothing to do with our day-to-day reality. Those stories are mere blippits on the radar at this point. They remind me of the whirlwind that I was swept up into, left almost unrecognizable to myself, as I planned a wedding and turned into a girly girl, entering into a mainstream institution.
I’m still confused by what, exactly, happened to me. I’m still difficult to deal with, yes, but my personality did a back flip in response to Michael’s triple lutz. He made me a better person. I became strong and secure, simply because he believed in me so much. And now, five and half years since we met, we’ve changed so much together that I have little in common with the person I was back then.
I know that I could handle an open marriage, but Michael is not interested. And would I want to go back to that way of life? I see the other options out there, and it all pales in comparison. Before, so much energy went into thinking about sex, when now, we put our energy into the work that we love doing. I was not that productive before Michael came along.
We have a shared narrative that makes life enjoyable. Sometimes we get stuck in a rut, and sometimes we forget to have sex for a few weeks, and at other times, he feels more like my brother or my son or my father than a husband. But then it all comes back around, and it’s like we’re at the beginning again, in our own little world, with the sheets in wild disarray, and the hours passing by undetected.
I think the important thing is to not look at a relationship as a given. To not give up on life and let everything go. It’s the outside world that keeps the inside world invigorated. It’s the community at large that keeps love alive. An insular relationship is doomed to end in boredom. With trust and openess, fresh energy flows, and you find that the person you married never stops changing.
November 16, 2013 § 6 Comments
When I married, I lost some of the respect I had gained as an independent, single woman. It was a change that I hadn’t seen coming. Strangers, without fail, defer to my husband. Servers only talk to me as an afterthought. We just had an experience at a steak restaurant, where only the men were given complimentary Port after dinner. It’s not only with strangers – I’m often asked by friends and family, “Is your husband okay with that?” As though I have a master waiting for me at home, rather than Michael, who loves me most for my strength and individuality. In fact, that is what I love most about him as well.
Michael can tend to be larger than life, and I often have to remind myself to step up and not fall into his shadow. As I’ve acclimated to our life together, I’ve learned I have to work much harder to earn the respect of everyone we meet. Instantly, it seems, people look up to Michael; whereas, it could take me years of being around the same people to receive affirmation.
Just in my lifetime, enormous strides have been made towards gender equality. But there is still so much of our culture that is steeped in Puritan roots. It is in our words, in our archetypes, and in the way that we view each other.
Within the patriarchal language of the church, woman is “the other.” “Society as we know it has a perverse need to create ‘the Other’ as object of condemnation so that those who condemn can judge themselves to be good (Daly, 60).”
It was doubtful at one point in history, whether or not women could actually be “saved.” Ideologically, she exists only as the property and projection of her husband. All other incarnations of women become a risk to the establishment – such as Joan of Arc who was burned alive by the church for the sentence of being a witch in 1431. Once hundreds of years had passed, she was then declared a saint in 1920.
Joan of Arc was a woman who could not be possessed in life, though the church has tried to claim her in death. In the symbolic paintings of Franz von Stuck, we see many versions of two men wrestling or fighting to “possess” a woman. Concurrent to Stuck’s era, this was a concept that Darwin explained, though obviously, he wasn’t the first to think so. It’s an ancient concept, having less to do with biology and more to do with a patriarchal power structure. Men projected their identities onto women, and displayed them as the prize of their success. Hence, we feel a little bit ill when a man trades in his wife for a younger version. Or, for example, when the leader of a cult has more wives than anyone else in his group – the ultimate sign of power.
I had the unfortunate experience of once dating a man who actually told me that he wanted to “possess” me, and said, “You are mine.” His general confusion led to death threats and court orders and drug abuse. For months, I was watched by people he hired, scared that he would turn up at my door. I understood, then, that a person’s desire to possess can turn into the mutilation of the thing they can’t have. In other words, I was an object to be claimed, rather than a human being.
Throughout the midcentury, it was commonplace for husbands to shut away their wives in mental institutions for displaying too much dissent over prescribed roles. In the tremendous shift towards liberation, women were no longer accepting their lives as a mere projection of their husband’s. Over 50,000 lobotomies were performed in that time, the majority on women.
“On February 24, 1972, Dr. Breggin’s article, ‘The Return of Lobotomy and Psychosurgery,’ was read into the Congressional Record. Discussing the remarkably large proportion of women who are being lobotomized, Dr. Breggin explains that it is more socially acceptable to lobotomize women because creativity, which the operation totally destroys, is in this society ‘an expendable quality in women (Daly, 65).'”
In Mary Daly’s Beyond God The Father, she challenges, “That language for millennia has affirmed the fact that Eve was born from Adam, the first among history’s unmarried pregnant males who courageously chose childbirth under sedation rather than abortion, consequently obtaining a child-bride (Daly, 195).”
From this myth, we gather that the male is the dominant sex. But in biological truth, all mammals begin as female. Even for those who inherit a male sex chromosome (XY), throughout the embryo stage we all remain and develop as female (XX). At the eighth week, the male embryo begins to produce testosterone, veering off course from the female starting point. If an embryo doesn’t respond correctly to male sex hormones, it will revert to being female.
The idea of a dominant sex is false. You can’t have one without the other. We are all individuals, with unique traits that in the past have been repressed by prescribed gender roles. Of course, there are many places in the world where these roles are still in place. Those regions are all governed by extremist religion. I have noticed that no matter what, religion is always extreme. It consumes the lives of people into false ideologies, and an “us verses them” mentality, which leads to violence and genocide.
“The symbol of the Father God, spawned in the human imagination and sustained as plausible by patriarchy, has in turn rendered service of this type of society by making its mechanisms for the oppression of women appear right and fitting. If God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling ‘his’ people, then it is in the ‘nature’ of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male-dominated (Daly, 13).”
As a result, women have lived in submission, with no recorded history. I wonder over all the untold stories; the women inventors (where men took credit); artists, writers, composers we have never been given the experience of enjoying. For example, Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of the famous composer Felix was an enormously talented composer in her own right. Yet in 1820, her father wrote to her saying, “Music will perhaps become his (Felix’s) profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.”
Our society has experienced a tremendous loss for the fault of not allowing women to be human beings in the past, and we are barely aware of it. We have forgotten, because we were not allowed to know in the first place.
In their representation as “the other,” women have been dealt implausible archetypes such as the virgin mother or the ruinous Eve. A mother is shamed for remaining a sexual being. A young twenty-something is glared at for being too beautiful. It’s her own fault if she is physically attacked. If you are a woman, you will experience some form of these instant judgments on your life.
Joan Rivers is a perfect pop culture example of this. Watch Fashion Police just once, and you will see her non-stop tirade against women. She represents the worst aspects of patriarchy embodied in a female. Most of her jokes revolve around slut-shaming and the idea that if a woman wears a skirt that’s too short, she is dirty and diseased. Rivers never directs a single unkind word towards men, and if she does, it is directed at their fashion rather than their perceived lifestyle.
“Obscene is not the picture of a naked woman who exposes her pubic hair but that of a fully clad general who exposes his medals rewarded in a war of aggression; obscene is not the ritual of Hippies but the declaration of a high dignitary of the Church that war is necessary for peace (An Essay On Liberation, Marcuse, 8).”
The “obscene woman” is often used to create a distraction. The battle against abortion raged while 4 million civilians were being killed in Vietnam.
When Hilary Rodham Clinton ran for candidacy in the 2008 presidential campaign, she was referred to as “The Bitch,” and “Her Thighness.” She was berated for showing cleavage while talking to the Senate. Rush Limbaugh asked the question, “Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?”
I remember the exact sense that we were being distracted from her achievements by attacks against her female body. These attacks seem to be the reason why she turned down a Vogue cover shoot for the risk of appearing too feminine. How can you blame her, when her body seemed like the biggest obstacle to winning the race?
“The power of presence that is experienced by those who have begun to live in the new space radiates outward, attracting others. For those who are fixated upon patriarchal space it apparently is threatening… Such women are no longer empty receptacles to be used as ‘the Other,’ and are no longer internalizing the projections that cut off the flow of being. Men who need such projection screens experience the power of absence of such ‘objects’ and are thrown into the situation of perceiving nothingness (Daly, 41-42).”
Mary Daly wrote these words in the early 1970’s. She considered the sexual revolution of the sixties to be a failure. The illusion of liberation hid the fact that though they attempted to go beyond life as a possession, they remained as objects to be claimed along the way. Like Hilary Clinton’s stance on the Vogue cover shoot, women of the eighties fought against objectification with the power suit. One of the first fashion memories I have of my mother is her shoulder-pads that could Velcro in and out of sweaters, dresses, and suits. They gave her the instant look of a Quarterback.
In the nineties, every week there was a new battle being fought. Sexual harassment lawsuits were a new concept. Rape culture was exposed. Coming forward became more acceptable, and there was a slight chance that you wouldn’t be told you were lying, or that you caused the rape. Very slight.
In my Christian high school, we all ridiculed a girl for fighting against an issue of sexual harassment. We felt embarrassed for her. I too was harassed, but I kept silent because I was afraid. I felt powerless. I sat pressed into the wall of the bus, while a football player’s son leaned all of his weight into me so I couldn’t move. He ran his hand up my thigh and whispered things that made me cringe. Everyday, he waited for a chance to torment me, and he wasn’t the only one.
A year ago, I listened to women at an art talk say that they are genderless. They are sick of Feminism. I am too. We all are. It’s tiresome to fight. We’re so close to being equal, that we can almost ignore that we aren’t.
The truth is we don’t have the right to be sick of it. We wouldn’t have our lives as individuals without it, for one. We wouldn’t even get to have the elitist idea of being genderless if it hadn’t been for the women who fought for a century and more, before us. Older women are very confused and upset by the statement of being genderless. At the same talk, they reminded us, that they had to pretend to be a man to find any success in the art world. They used their initials instead of their first names just to get a gallery show.
To say genderless, though, has some positive aspects. It says “no” against sex role stereotyping.
I do not want women to rule the world, and I do not want men to rule the world. We deserve total and complete balance. There is a sense, that if Hilary Clinton runs for President in 2016, she will not face the same abuse and slander that she dealt with the first time around. More and more, we see women running companies, becoming scientists, lawyers, and politicians, following their dreams and finding success.
The next generation is an entirely different breed than my own. Young women that I meet really impress me. They make more money in one year than I’ve made in a lifetime, and are buying houses at the age of 23. They’re not wasting time. They have goals, and I have no doubt that they will meet them. I will never exactly be that sort of person. The society I grew up in treated me as “the other.” But it’s enough to see the magnificent change.
October 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
Through the entire decade of my twenties, I was in denial about being a member of the female sex. I loved men so much, that I wanted to be one. All around me, I saw that women were the victims – while men had all the fun, women just got angry.
I had some of the best times of my life in open relationships, and also some of the worst. But the most important part of that experience was taking ownership of myself. By being around men who were staunch in their independence and sense of self, I became a stronger person. And somehow, I found the way to a different definition of what a woman can be than the one I’d grown up with.
In those first years out of college, there were no examples of female strength – only jealousy and haughty glares; or the Christian girls who stopped returning my phone calls though we’d been best friends. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I finally found the women who became my true sisters. They were in tune with their bodies. They were tough in the face of assholes, and soft in the privacy of our intimate conversations. Rather than threatened by each other, we were inspired by each other’s beauty. We felt more powerful as a group than we did separately. In fact, whenever we were together, magical things occurred; the planets aligned for us; we magnetized strange experiences; we became bonded for life, like family.
But I still didn’t embrace my body as a woman. My body as some fertile place of procreation scared me half to death. If another woman’s cycle threw mine off, I felt as though she’d just one-upped me. I knew nothing at all about how female reproduction really worked. It was something I avoided. I could barely admit that I too experienced all the symptoms of a cycle, even if my friends talked freely about it and gloried in being in tune with the moon. I couldn’t shake the embarrassment my mother had raised me with, around the female sex.
In the beginning, sex brought me to life. I had zero embarrassment or awkwardness around that. It woke up all my senses, and inspired reams of Whitman-esque poetry. I loved the adventure of sleeping with near-strangers or random friends. I loved enjoying whoever was right in front of me. Taking in their personhood like a story I could wrap my brain around. We wove our lives through each other, asking for nothing in return. What we gave in those nights was just enough.
I was hanging with a pile of sexy rocker-types. We drank a lot. Our culture revolved around it. You play gigs in bars, make connections in bars, see all of your friends in bars. In my twenties, I thought I would always go on living like every day was a party. I couldn’t imagine changing. I loved my life. It was one big adventure. It felt like I was living in a movie. But then, Michael came along.
In Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch relates how it felt meeting the man of her life, and also her third husband.
“He treated this thing I’d done – this DUI – the dead baby – the failed marriages – the rehab – the little scars at my collar bone – my vodka – my scarred as shit past and body – as chapters of a book he wanted to hold in his hands and finish (Yuknavitch, 239).”
At first, it seemed with Michael, that we’d go on living the way we both always had. But the thing was, if we kept living that way, we’d be torn apart. The more we drank, the more we fought. Our old lives didn’t work when it came to being a unit.
I was alone in bed one morning, so hung-over that I may have been delirious. A little boy walked into the room, sat on the bed, and said, “I love you Mommy. I’m going to save your life.”
Immediately, I started crying. I thought if I talked to him, it would keep him from disappearing. I desperately wanted him to stay. But within seconds, he was gone. And yet, he wasn’t. It feels like he’s been with me ever since.
Not long after, I went cold turkey off the alcohol for eight months, so the painful hole in my stomach lining could heal. I started to live differently. Suddenly, I felt crystal clear. I began to wake up early so that I could write. Being productive now meant so much more than being entertained. I realized that in all those years of drinking, I had buried the pain I’d experienced from growing up in the church, and now I needed to deal with it. I began to explore, searching for some basis of truth.
I saw the nighttime world in a completely different way – boring, pathetic, where people acted dumb and got into stupid fights and slept with all the wrong people. It was still fun for them, and I appreciate all phases of life, but it was no longer for me.
It might seem ludicrous that a little boy vision could change my life. The thing is, my husband is infertile. When we first started dating, he told me it was from a childhood disease that he struggled with. That was only half true. A few years later, his friends spilled the beans that he also had a vasectomy. He was too embarrassed to admit it to me because an ex-girlfriend had pressured him into it. It was humiliating to have his friends tell me an intimate detail that was so important to our lives together. I couldn’t believe that he lied to me, and it took months for me to forgive him.
We talked about reversing his vasectomy, but the success rate is not that high, especially since he had such a low count to begin with. There is a high risk of childhood disease in his family, and he left that abusive family behind at the age of fifteen. His life became a story with the potential for happiness, while the past now only exists as literature. Michael is an excellent writer.
He started joking that we should use one of his friends as a sperm donor. Something I’ve learned in our relationship, is that jokes often become a reality. One day, I asked over brunch, “I wonder how much it costs to use a real sperm donor?”
“Lets find out.”
Immediately, I dove into obsessive research, and eventually found an excellent cryobank. They supply clients with medical records, interviews, baby photos, personality tests, and interests.
The search had to go on hold for many months until August arrived. When I saw our donor’s baby photo, I knew he was the right one. Michael was more impressed by the donor interview, where the lady conducting could hardly contain her attraction, and our donor sounded so mature for a twenty-something. Once we picked him, I began an exploration on reproduction, and how to plan conception for the exact day.
So far, we’ve done two rounds, and I’m in the process of waiting to find out the results of our last try. It’s proven much more stressful and all-consuming than I imagined. Going in, it seems like it should be easy, but the body works on its own time. Five-day windows are a gamble, and once the sperm arrives in a dry ice canister, it only has five days left before it thaws. As we learn more, I feel relaxed that it’s all going to work out in the end. I have an excellent Naturopath who is helping me every step of the way.
This entire year has been a learning process. I worked in an art studio with a group of empowered women from their thirties to sixties. They began to shift my perception of what it means to be a woman. The female artists I know are the strongest, most honest women I have ever met. They are fully present within themselves.
One actually admitted that she regrets motherhood; others revel in it; still others regret never having a child; some can’t imagine ever wanting one. All of them find their center through art. Continuing the cycle of humanity is not enough. You also need to leave the mark of what life itself means to you, to expand on the process in your own special way.
Just a few years ago, I thought I wasn’t capable of being a mother. There was no stability in my life. As a creative person, it’s difficult to find that balance, or any sort of financial safety zone. And then, I willingly gave up the thought of a baby to be with Michael.
There is something about a baby. I feel as though I won’t be able to fully embrace my own sex without that experience. And yet, I respect and admire all of the friends who choose not to have a child.
Something inside me asks, is it possible that I can share in that experience of being a mother? Does my body really work? Do I have all the right parts to make a baby happen? Am I really as healthy as I think I am?
It’s a funny thing that humans are always amazed by their ability to reproduce. You don’t see a cow in a pasture with a look of shock and awe on its face that a calf just came out of its uterus. It grooms the calf like it’s just another day, and eats the placenta to keep the prey away.
Even though I’ve become a little bit stodgy in my mid-thirties, I still feel like I’m a kid. Or maybe I am losing the remains of kid-dom, so I long for a baby to bring those fresh eyes back into focus.
At some point, you realize that life will go on being the same. I work hard and play hard. No great shakes. I’m ready for the big shake-up. I’m ready for change and growth and challenge. I think a child will even wake up my creativity in new ways that I am unable to see in the present.
“His argument against all my fluttering resistance? One sentence. One sentence up against the mass of my crappy life mess. ‘I can see the mother in you. There is more to your story than you think (Yuknavitch, 240).'”
By the way, The Chronology of Water is an excellent book. Lidia Yuknavitch is fearless in her honesty and is a courageous literary soul. I’ve met her twice at readings, and her energy invigorates me every time. She is not at all the broken woman she writes of in her memoir. Her experiences have made her a wise woman, and a brilliant writer. It’s the struggles that make us stronger.
June 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
After much ado, the book trailer for my memoir, No End Of The Bed, is now live! The concept is based around parallels between the church and the sex-positive movement. Enjoy!
May 12, 2013 § 4 Comments
I am so happy to announce that my memoir No End Of The Bed is now available on Amazon!
Lauren J. Barnhart’s memoir No End Of The Bed spans her search for truth through differing perceptions of sex, with some surprising parallels made between the fundamentalist church and the sex-positive movement.
Raised within the confines of Fundamentalism, Lauren J. Barnhart is instructed that her body is inherently evil and unclean; that innocence is of the highest value; and that a woman is meant to be a servant to everyone but herself. She struggles to believe all that she is told or else disappoint family, friends, and an all-knowing God.
At age twenty-one, outside of her small conservative college, Lauren expresses her sexuality and is surprised to discover a lack of guilt for her transgressions. Within nature rather than against it, awakened to all five senses, she begins to record the feelings of intense love and empathy that she failed to find within the church.
In the search for something more, she is drawn towards a group of polyamorists, who celebrate the body and the freedom to express themselves with many. Through their zest for life, she abundantly taps into her artistic nature. But at the same time, she experiences the same misuse of power that was left behind in the pews. Realizing that the need to find a leader is a fallacy, Lauren learns to value her own true voice, and finds the strength to forge a different path.
I began this book when I initially broke with the church twelve years ago. The experiences I had along the way were strange and extraordinary, and it took the entirety of that time since, for the story to fully unfold. In fact, the last chapter took place exactly one year ago.
In my early twenties, I became obsessed with the need to capture everything I was experiencing. I kept detailed journals, wrote poems, songs, and began writing short stories that grew to connect as chapters.
It took ten years, and one year of prodding from my husband, before I could face the fact that I was writing a memoir. I’m still shocked that I’m not hiding behind the false label of fiction. There are truths in the book that I wouldn’t even tell my close friends. But a book is different than a conversation. And without total and complete honesty, the story loses its effect.
Others who feature in my story might not remember the details the same way that I do. Each and every one of us has a different set of memories. But we all shared the same arc from repression to crazy expression.
I am very immersed in the present right now (more than I have ever been). I could not let go of the past until I finished this book. It helped me to process my life. I came to understand everyone else’s motives. I forgave them and went through a long phase of constantly thinking through the male mind. At least that is to say, the male minds that are in the book!
In the end, I found that there were more similarities between the Fundamentalist church and the Sex-Positive movement, than dissimilarities. Erica Jong once wrote, “All pornographers are puritans.” Residing in one extreme, the complete opposite extreme lies within it, just under the surface of repression.
Growing up, I was told that the body I live in is rife with taboo. I wanted to understand why. I put myself in highly uncomfortable situations just to test my own limits. I discovered that taboo only exists in your mind. Fear is based on the unfamiliar. Rules and religion began with the human desire for control and patriarchy, and control keeps the masses in the dark.
Through the long, arduous publication process, passages, words, phrases, and pages jumped out at me: flashes of years past. No End Of The Bed shows me how far I’ve come. I feel invulnerable to judgment. The young, confused girl in the book is not the woman that I am today.
But I also miss certain aspects of that very youthful place. I was so open to people that it bordered on unhealthy, though I learned so much from them. I was also scared shitless of all the new people that spoke a different language than the religious language I grew up with. Lately I am reminded, that if you’re not scared shitless, you’re not really living. Being on the stage seems to provide that over and over for me. I like to be constantly challenged so that I can keep growing.
Right now, I have two other books in the works, and I will be publishing other authors as well through Knotted Tree Press including literary fiction, memoir, essays, and poetry. You can find out more at Knotted Tree Press.
In the memoir, I found responsibility for my self. I let go of the need for a leader, and discovered my own truth. In taking charge of the publishing of that memoir, I found responsibility for my work. I’ve loved every detail of editing, formatting, designing the cover artwork, and marketing. The funny thing is, it took exactly nine months to complete the publishing process. Now, it’s just so good to be back to writing again.
December 17, 2012 § 10 Comments
As a young adult, my entire worldview was shaped by Fundamentalism. But everywhere I looked within the church, I saw that what was being preached, didn’t measure up. Pastor after pastor took a “fall,” usually of a sexual nature. My own “fall” was the best thing that ever happened to me. Unfortunately for the pastors, they lost their jobs, and sometimes their families.
See Me Naked – Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity by Amy Frykholm, was not the book that I thought it was going to be, but it was valuable all the same. No one interviewed for the book was actually tossed out of the church or excommunicated for their sexual sin. Yet I hear those stories all the time, particularly at creepy Mars Hill church down the street; the very last church I attended. Pastor Mark is such a misogynist power tripper that his downfall is bound to happen any day now.
Amy makes brief mention of the infamous Ted Haggard (mega pastor who was ousted for his secret homosexual life), then dives in to everyday people who have come to terms with bridging the gap between their sexuality and their faith. Throughout the book, however, the interviews are tinged with a bias. Frykholm is Episcopalian, by far my favorite Christian denomination for its all-inclusive, caring for the community spirit. But one can’t help but feel proselytized to from the standpoint of her beliefs. Impossible not to, I know. Just as when I share my own belief system (Atheism), Christians tend to feel attacked or even threatened, with knowing remarks about how someday I’ll “see the light.”
While reading See Me Naked, I recognized my own path in many of the stories, though my journey had a much different outcome.
“The message she heard from every corner was: you do not belong to yourself. You are not your own. You belong to us and you will do what we say (Frykholm, 80).”
I remember when all of my words were bottled up inside me, held back, weighing me down. I constantly had questions. All through my first twenty years, I wanted to challenge what I was being told. But if I challenged it, I would be seen as a failure. And a person who questions the word of God is weak.
I didn’t feel strong, I felt diminutive, as though my unspoken words would swallow me up into nonbeing. I walked through life like a ghost – not speaking, not touched, not known.
“He had “given a piece of his heart to all of them” and therefore did not have a whole heart to give to his bride. In this conception, purity is a finite, all too easily expendable quantity (Frykholm, 108).”
The word “purity” has no meaning for me. When I hear that word, it does not go beyond the age of twelve. I see a child. As an adult, purity has no value. It means purely free of personality and life. It signifies a person not fully formed. Someone with little understanding of the complexity of human relationships, and how much we can learn and grow from a love that is not finite but expands and grows. The highest value is in maturity, wisdom, and intelligence. People who can offer these three things have value that does not flit away, unlike the fleeting “purity.” Of course, it’s also wrapped up in the idea of innocent youth, and in an over-thirty something, “purity” is a train wreck of desperation.
For Christians on the marriage track, the fantasized about future will surely disappoint them once they are wed. In the courtship phase, moments that should be filled with intense pleasure and enjoyment, are instead replaced with the constant danger of falling over a cliff into a deep ravine of insatiable pleasure. Danger. Mistakes. Regret. No going back. Every touch is quantified and measured. And if the couple slips and falls, then one has “used” the other, selfishness has entered the game, bodies are “objectified.”
I use quotes here for all the words that fail to play a role in my vocabulary. Coming to a different worldview, has also meant coming to a new language. When I talk to my family, I listen to the ways in which we speak two different languages, and I feel the pain of a disconnect.
Purity is a pleasure to sully. Humans have enjoyed this sport since the beginning of time. In cultures around the world, the male pursuit of purity has imprisoned women in unhappy marriages, subservience, and shame. By ridding culture of virgin worship, we come to a place of equality for both men and women.
“Many of the people I interviewed for this book grew up with the idea that, if they made one mistake, they would fall into doom and misery. Sexual mistakes had the most dire consequences. Thus, sexuality became ensconced in fear – fear of being found out, fear of being truly known, fear of failing. Yet nearly everyone I interviewed had found a way through fear and found their deepest intimacy with God in their capacity for wonder (Frykholm, 173).”
When I was twenty-one and had sex for the first time, it took a year’s worth of therapy to get over the discovery of who I really was beneath the Christian veneer. The therapists didn’t do much beyond just allowing me to voice my own honesty for the first time.
With that honesty, I began to feel brave, and shared my poetry with classmates. Through writing, I broached the pain of feeling that all of my life, I had been lied to. It was obvious to me, that the body and sex and all of our five senses are not selfish and depraved, but immensely beautiful and giving. I never really knew how to love until that year. My awakening to empathy is intrinsically linked with pen and paper, and the need to write.
“If we pay very close attention, I think we will find that the pleasures of excess, hedonism, and self-indulgence are thin. Deeper, wider, more lasting pleasures are available as we grow more attentive to and more comfortable in our own skins, and as we give up the notion that pleasure is inherently selfish (Frykholm, 176).”
Frykholm offers no remedy for the conflict between church and sexuality. A difficult quandary when people are living ancient tribal beliefs in the literal sense. The church would like people to think that they have no control over themselves. The taboos loom larger than they really should be. They are afraid of what they don’t know. If you are afraid of something, maybe you should try it. It’s the key to understanding your fears.
December 4, 2012 § Leave a comment
While reading, Dora – A Headcase, by Lidia Yuknavitch, I became one with a character I would not exactly identify with in real life – a wacked out teenaged nightmare. I attended Lidia’s reading a few months ago, where she explained that Dora was based off of a case study by Freud. His patient Ida (given the pseudonym Dora in his publication) was diagnosed with Hysteria due to her symptom of Aphonia (loss of voice). Ida’s father was having an affair with Frau K, and Herr K had made advances on Ida. Freud was certain that Ida had secret wishes to be fully seduced by Herr K, but in actuality, her desires revolved around Frau K. His misplacement of Ida’s desires, and her abrupt exit from their therapy sessions caused him to conclude that he had failed her.
Lidia read about Ida in college, and the story stayed with her for years. Dora – A Headcase follows a similar plotline, though it is based in modern day Seattle with a few guerilla filmmaking joyrides thrown in.
To be honest, there were a few Seattle details that were slightly off, and I had to suspend my disbelief. For example, there is no 7-Eleven downtown, not until you get to lower Queen Anne. There is also no Shari’s restaurant, only in the suburbs. And a high-rise condo on Capitol Hill was not quite believable since there are no buildings in my neighborhood over eight stories high. But this is fiction, after all, and I have too much pride in my city.
“You know what? Seventeen in no place to be. You want to get out, you want to shake off a self like old dead skin. You want to take how things are and chuck it like a rock. You pierce your face or you tattoo your skin – anything to feel something beyond the numb of home (27, Yuknavitch).”
I remember this feeling distinctly. Hell, I have even felt this as an adult. When I was seventeen, I felt trapped in a life that wasn’t my own – it was my parent’s. Everything in me was pulsing, charging, held back in a cage that made me want to implode. All day long in high school, I was force-fed a bunch of crap that had no use in everyday life (I was right about that one). At night I numbed myself on episodes of Oprah Winfrey, and tried to sneak in MTV when my parents weren’t looking. And then I’d find something like A Clockwork Orange – a movie that so disturbed me it pretty much changed my life.
I was banned from the macabre, the dark side, the body, the taboo. But in order to understand all of life, you need to be given more than just a window with a view.
At the time, my experience, my education, was all within film and television. Nothing was happening in my life. You could sum up non-existent dramas in your head (as teenagers do), but they never played out. I’d be lucky if a crush talked to me just once a year. I was in the dork’s club. And my only outlet was art.
“You know, when you can’t talk, talking sounds different. Everyone sounds like a soundtrack of talking instead of like people… like they are on a stage and you are in the audience – and all of their voices suddenly sound… like art. It’s comforting (121, Yuknavitch).”
Ida aka Dora runs amok. She does everything I wish I’d had the balls to do when I was a teenager, and am glad that I didn’t. As she finds a way to dose her therapist Siggy with an almost lethal dose of Viagra and Cocaine (his drug of choice, of course), it’s cringe-worthy. He just wants to help her, yet she does everything she can to rage against him. Siggy is just another cage that she wants to climb out of.
From there, the book becomes a wild roller coaster. Around every chapter there’s a fresh twist of “oh shit.” What is distinctly missing is high school. But it goes unnoticed, the way that a lack of parents in brat pack movies goes unnoticed.
What becomes obvious is just how much Yuknavitch enjoys her craft. You can see her laughing with glee in a room somewhere as she comes up with these crazy teen lingo sentences, putting herself in a tailspin of writer frenzy.
Like Dora I had no voice. I went through long periods of time never talking, just observing life floating by. People could shout at me, pinch me, push me, and I would still say nothing. I was a voyeur of life, not a participator. Everyday I wanted to die. I wanted to feel something and then have it all be over for good.
As I age life becomes more vital. All of that creative energy was untamed back then, and yes you could say I had Hysteria, because sex brought me to life. Now my days are pure expression. I don’t want to die before I’ve sent all of my art out into the world where it can domino into someone else’s experience of pure, beautiful life. The greatest gift is to be told that my writing has given others a voice.
November 25, 2012 § Leave a comment
A year ago I went to Susie Bright’s reading for her memoir, Big Sex Little Death. She signed my copy “Lauren, Clits up! Susie Bright.” She told some interesting stories about traveling through the country on her book tour while I sat wondering what the Puritans would think about her book title – if you have big sex, there’s bound to be a little death, or maybe even a lot.
“One brother killing his other half, his soul mate, was sensational enough – but add “hardcore” to it, and it was as if everyone in the sexual counterculture were on trial.
Reporters called me: “Did you see it coming? Were you pressured? Were you afraid? Did you get high with them, take it up the ass before the guns came out? Their questions were crazy because they all assumed that sex had led to violence. Not despair, not religion, not the empty bottle of abandonment (Bright, 303).”
Artie had been on a violent binge, and Jim shot him – the Mitchell brothers behind the famous O’Farrell theater strip club in San Francisco where Susie’s friends worked.
In life, there is death. The religious right would have us believe that death equals sin. But all of life is merely a cycle that our egos strain against.
In the same way, movements are born and then die. Manifestos have flaws, so we build off the old to create the new, hopefully improved, trains of thought.
Susie Bright has been at the forefront of movements in our history – grabbing life by the balls since she was a teenager running rampant in the Communist party. She was attacked, dodged bullets, and sacrificed her individuality for the cause. But amidst a shift, she was accused of betrayal and kicked out, most likely for not being a drone.
Several years later, she was influential in forming the lesbian erotic magazine, On Our Backs, with a group of strippers. For years they struggled to stay afloat amidst political battles of the Andrea Dworkin/Catherine MacKinnon variety. At that point, many feminists were joining with the religious right in the fight for anti-pornography laws, and the magazine found more support from gay culture.
“We were too obscene to glue together. All of us, the women in erotica and in sex education, ended up paying what amounted to enormous bribes to be printed at all. And the printer’s risk? Zero. The U.S. attorney general’s office, to this very day, has the same attitude toward women’s sexual potential as that held by the Victorians: They really don’t believe lesbians have sex (Bright, 259).”
Blatant, in your face, unapologetic women who don’t need the male gaze to feel beautiful or sexual is apparently, a frightening thing. The women at the magazine received death threats and accusations of every variety. Eventually, the pressure to stay afloat amidst so much opposition and lack of funding literally broke the magazine’s back. Susie’s life reached another movement, that of motherhood, teaching, writing, and sunshine in Santa Cruz.
“I had to Protect the Baby, but I ended up Protecting Me… Malingerers, fakers, and self-destructive impulses were red-tagged and booted (Bright, 287).”
I am not a mother, but I relate to this feeling from my experience of being a wife. Through my husband’s love for me, I came to love myself in a new light, and suddenly had no patience for the crazies, the neurotics, or the people who take me down a notch for no reason. As I became aware of someone else’s needs, I became more aware of my own. Love transformed, turning the past into stories, rather than painful emotional ties.
Like Susie, I have that desire to capture my personal history and encapsulate it – not only because it tells of my life, but also because it celebrates the people I have known, the cities I lived in that have changed since then, the zeitgeist that is no longer. We have all evolved, and it’s one of the reasons why we need to write it all down, or paint it, or film it, or photograph it – so we can remember how far we’ve come, and see more clearly, where we are going.
September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment
After watching the excellent film The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, I had no choice but to pick up Dalma Heyn’s book, The Erotic Silence of the American Wife.
In the film, Pippa marries a wealthy man thirty years her senior when she is a young runaway living on the edge. She mutates from being an expressive human being with problems into the stilted and empty role of being the Perfect Wife. But underneath all of her prim lines, you sense the real Pippa lurking underneath. She begins sleepwalking, ending up at the min-mart where she buys cigarettes. And then, out to lunch with her neurotic friend, Pippa begins to combust:
“You could be married to anybody, if that’s what you’re worried about. Marriage is an act of will. I mean, I adore Herb, but our marriage functions because we will it to. If you leave love to hold everything together, you can forget it. Love comes and goes with the breeze, minute by minute.”
When Dalma Heyn set out to write her book comprised of years worth of interviews with wives who committed adultery, she began with an armload of clichés, stereotypes, and societal views that had nothing to do with the feelings of actual women, their marriages, and their experiences. The problem that all of these women shared, was that they bought into the ideal of the Perfect Wife – she is selfless, giving, able to predict the needs of everyone else, without ever meeting her own needs. When these women don’t measure up to this idea of goodness (and no one ever does or should), they constantly feel bad – they are a failure, there is something wrong with them. In the process, they disconnect completely from themselves and go numb. They can no longer experience a fulfilling sex life either. They’ve become what they thought was their husband’s fantasy, but it has nothing to do with them. They are looking at themselves from the outside in.
“They spoke of a profound awareness that they were somehow no longer themselves, that they weren’t in a relationship but playing a role in one (Heyn, 103)…”
They wonder what became of the sexual outlaw they were before marriage. Some of the women had not even had premarital sex. Regardless, women from their twenties to their seventies, and all walks of life, experience adultery as a rebirth of self. They don’t experience shame or guilt – they experience life, total joy and an uninhibited place to reclaim their authenticity. They seek out men that have none of the prerequisites that they look for in a husband or even a boyfriend. They might not even be in love with these men, it doesn’t matter; the experience of total freedom is the same.
The women often have no desire to leave their husbands. But through the experience of adultery, they understand that they need to change the shape of their marriages, so that at last, their needs can factor into the relationship. There is no going back to the Perfect Wife. Some of the women never tell their husbands and fare well, while a large percentage of the women who do tell end up in divorce. But every marriage is different with different outcomes.
I never thought that I would get married because I loved being single so much. My sexuality was the ultimate adventure for me. So sometimes, I wonder, how did I end up married to a man whose sexuality is so vanilla. He’s turning fifty this year, and though he thinks of having sex all the time, it’s often the last priority. When it doesn’t feel like a routine, when he isn’t being too sensitive and careful, sex between us is wonderful, but rarely ever dark, or seductive, or unbridled. Can these things exist in a marriage? I always thought they could.
When we were dating he struggled to keep up with me. He stayed up late with me till the early morning hours and we had sex everyday. He was working three jobs and started to feel the pressure.
Around the same time, I decided to give him a fashion show. I went into my closet and put on all my old fetish gear – vinyl, thigh-high fishnets, towering platforms. When I paraded out, he was not aroused by it at all. He said I was playing the part of someone else. Maybe it was who I was before he met me, maybe I never was that role to begin with. It just wasn’t for him. He wanted me to put on a sleek and elegant dress instead. I’d never encountered a man who didn’t go crazy over artifice. For a week after that, he struggled sexually, and then unbeknownst to me, Viagra saved the day.
For him, the two events were unrelated, but after that week, I stopped taking risks. I started feeling nervous about making him uncomfortable. I left my kinks behind. He loves my strength in all facets of our life together. But he has a puritan side, a clumsy embarrassment over anything out of the ordinary.
The other issue is that he’s not the string bean-types that I used to date. He’s like one of those massive warriors that you see in movies like 300. Built like a rock, solid, stocky, with huge hands that don’t know their own strength. When I told him that I like to be choked, he gave it a try and almost broke my neck. When he sleeps with his arm across my chest, my ribs begin to feel like they’re crushing under the pressure and I panic, trying desperately to wake myself. I’m still learning how to live with our differences.
But life is also easier, happier, more content with him. We can’t get enough of being together – we work together, go out all the time, talk openly about everything, and share our passions. It’s always fun, even when we’re fighting. We don’t buy into the term “settling down” like many couples do. I play the role of the Perfect Wife more for my parents than my husband. When they show up, everything is clean and dinner is delicious. When they’re not here, our lives are chaotic and slightly out of control.
I don’t idealize our relationship. I didn’t marry a man for his status or money. I married a fellow outlaw, who lives by his own rules, and makes me laugh. I’m well aware that the future is uncertain. I’ll be surprised if our marriage survives for the rest of our lives, and I very much hope that it does. And does that only mean the rest of his life, since I’m so much younger? I make jokes about being a wealthy old widow, living like a gypsy and on the prowl. But really, it’s just to make myself feel better about the unknown.
I went through some confusing changes in the process of our growing closer. Like a rubber band snapping back and forth. I was caught up in the whirlwind, in the romance in the beginning. Then after our engagement I rebelled and fought and wanted to leave. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing. But on our wedding day, it all made sense.
For a short while, I turned into an old lady, had no real friends, started to compensate for my husband’s reckless, accident-prone nature by being extremely anxious, nervous, overly careful. At times, the pressure of being a wife overwhelms me. I’ve often wanted to run back to when my life was more straightforward and simple – when I could just work, do my art, and have sex with random people every now and then.
Sex was self-discovery, mutual-discovery, empathic-discovery. Married sex is something completely different that I don’t quite understand. It’s like we need to learn to speak each other’s languages, and haven’t quite gotten there yet.
There is a strange role-reversal where in our relationship I am supposed to be more like the man and he is more like the woman. He wants to cuddle and be close, and I just want to get laid. He wants to work up to it for long periods of time, while I get bored waiting. He wants me to initiate, while I just want to feel wanted. And yet, he is enormously giving, patient, and selfless – which makes me feel like an impatient, selfish, taker.
No couple is perfect, and somehow our differences balance things out. My husband is the first man I was ever in a committed relationship with. I guess I got bored with everything else. Before we met, I had become an evil heartbreaker. The ego trip felt nice, but it didn’t feel right to hurt people and feel nothing. My husband didn’t buy all that crap. He saw right through it (though he admits to being scared of me at first). It was good to be seen at last. Really seen. It still is.
When I think of other men sexually, I wonder what would be the point, when there’s only one man who lets me be who I really am. Maybe not the dominatrix side, but every other side. Everyone else pales in comparison. Everyone else seems like they’re missing something. With everyone I dated before, I was never really myself, and was never accepted to begin with.
I am the subject of my husband’s life. He says that I give his life meaning. He even took my last name.
Yesterday was our 2nd Anniversary. I hemmed my wedding dress and surprised him by wearing it on our dinner date, along with my birdcage veil, and my grandmother’s jade necklace. We talked about our plans for building our future together. We talked openly and honestly about how we really feel about all of it. We raved over Sea Urchin, Veal Sweetbreads, Cavatelli with Morels, Chocolate Truffle Cake with Black Cherries. We even talked about this post, and how our memories are different, and yet the same.
This is the first openly honest thing I’ve ever written about my husband, stripped of all the idealistic tripe. I’m breaking my erotic silence.
March 14, 2012 § 1 Comment
In Alix Kates Shulman’s 1972 novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, Sasha fights against the traps of being a woman. As a child, the boy’s are pure enemies. She is attacked, held down and pantsed so the boys can stare at her vagina with a ‘seen one, seen them all’ look on their faces. As an adolescent she is lured into a ride home by a group of boys, only to be driven to a remote location where they can force her to touch a boy’s penis.
Her first boyfriend cares less about her than about getting laid, though she knows that if anyone finds out she’ll be expelled from her sorority and shunned by her classmates. Her first job backfires when the cook threatens her to try and get her to sleep with him. In college her dream of pre-law is put aside when she falls in love with Philosophy and the Philosophy professor. By the time she’s playing with the big boys, attempting a PhD at Columbia – she is treated with so much disdain for being a woman in the program that she stops speaking in class and flocks to the safety of the wives in the kitchen. She begins to panic that she’s getting too old and too educated. So she marries the first guy who treats her well.
As soon as they’re married, of course, he stops talking to her. He can’t hide his contempt. His life has a grand purpose, while she supports him at menial jobs. Her mind is no longer stimulating to him or to herself. All he wants is his dinner.
“Why was everything nice he did for me a bribe or a favor, while my kindnesses to him were my duty (Shulman, 5)?”
She embarks on a series of affairs, but every time she leaves her husband she falls into the same man traps wherever she goes. A lover in Spain, in Italy, and then eventually a second husband and two kids. Completely dependent on a man who secretly hungers for carefree youth, she is constantly afraid he will leave her.
Interesting too, are Sasha’s musings over her physical self. At fifteen she is crowned Queen of the Bunny Hop. By twenty-four she fears that she is old, and that people would find it laughable to think she was once considered beautiful. There is always that disconnect between how others see her, and how she feels she looks.
“Could it be that the prettier I grew the worse I would be treated? Much likelier, I thought, I wasn’t really pretty (Shulman, 49).”
You have to wonder, though there were many disadvantages to being a woman at that time, did Sasha’s beauty add to her disempowerment? Beautiful women are rarely ever noticed for their minds. Sasha hates a come-on as much as she loves it. On one hand it proves she’s still beautiful, on the other it reminds her she is vulnerable, even to possible attack. Being valued for her looks is also emotionally damaging as age removes her worth.
Forty years since this book was published, the ultimate value of a woman is still judged on the basis of physical beauty. A woman in the public eye who is not attractive is torn to shreds (for example, Hilary Clinton), while a beautiful woman is adored by everyone (Angelina Jolie). Success and accomplishment are no protection from the scrutiny. But will we remember Angelina Jolie for her excellent screenwriting skills, or will we remember her more for how hot she looked baring her leg at the Oscars? Being beautiful, unfortunately, is a distraction from the accomplishments you weren’t born with.
I can vouch that when I was in my physical prime (early twenties), no one was really interested in hearing my poetry. They just wanted me to wear hot pants to a party, and I was more than willing to flaunt it. I never felt valued for who I was on the inside. But I enjoyed all the attention otherwise. And eventually I learned to lead with my personality rather than my appearance.
Beneath this was an insatiable need for affirmation. Growing up in school I had been completely invisible. I was always quiet and up in my head. I was a dork – ugly, awkward, insecure, with bad grades and braces. My quietness made the other kids uncomfortable. Boys never talked to me unless it was to mock me or scare the shit out of me with sexual threats. Maybe it was that total and complete lack of control that turned me into a control freak. All I knew was, someday I wanted to be in charge.
If I had remained in the church, men and the life in general would have most certainly been a trap. But outside of the church and those old fashioned values, men were my freedom. In fact, the men I fell for brought my dreams to life. For a long time I lived in a fantasy. All of my relationships were open with no responsibilities involved.
Marriage and monogamy, however, are so based in reality, I have to admit, I’m still struggling to get used to it. It’s hard to keep marriage exciting – especially when you are living with your best friend. Sex is not the first thought, it’s the after-thought. And it is sometimes difficult to not equate marriage as an institution akin to the church. When I left religion, I celebrated all of my freedoms from repression. But then when you get married, there are parts of yourself that inevitably become repressed to protect your relationship. It’s like a catch-22, because you’ve never been happier than with your partner, but in order for that to survive, you can’t just do and say whatever you want. You can no longer be selfish as you begin to think through this other person and their feelings.
But for the first time, I am finally loved for who I really am, and my husband embraces the free spirit in me. He brings warmth and brightness to my life, whereas before, life was dark, edgy and unpredictable.
In Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen Sasha bemoans the traps of womanhood, laughing it off as all her fears come to pass. There is always the clock ticking, the beauty slipping, the value falling down. She runs from her own brilliance into the arms of man, where frets and responsibilities distract her from dreams that became insurmountable.
Memoirs was written from the standpoint of a very different time – but every time has its pitfalls and struggles for the sake of biology. The balance between men and women is precarious and difficult. Alix Kates Shulman based much of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen off of her own life. Though her life story is such a great success (even helping to lead the famous protest at the Miss America Pageant), Sasha’s story ends in defeat. I prefer to look beyond the book’s ending into Shulman’s inspiring example, trailblazing for women, allowing nothing to hold her back.